Researchers have found a reproductive female North Atlantic right whale entangled in fishing gear and in very poor condition south of Nantucket, calling the discovery a blow to the endangered species.Researchers with the Northeast Fisheries Science Center of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) were conducting an aerial survey on Monday when they spotted the whale, named Dragon, with a buoy lodged into the right side of her mouth.

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“The potential loss of a mother is particularly devastating to North Atlantic right whales, which number about 400,” the New England Aquarium in Boston, Mass., said in a press release.According to NOAA, Dragon appeared emaciated with unhealthy-looking skin. The buoy is preventing her mouth from closing, which scientists at the New England Aquarium said is likely the main cause of her terrible condition.

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“She is extremely emaciated and gray, suggesting she may have been entangled and unable to close her mouth for months,” said senior scientist Amy Knowlton, who has worked on the aquarium’s Kraus Marine Mammal Conservation Program since 1983.Knowlton said the orange patches around Dragon’s head, seen in aerial photos, show that the whale’s skin is infested with orange cyamids, a kind of lice that focuses on areas where there is an injury.
Dragon entangled in fishing gear, lodged in and around her mouth.
Dragon entangled in fishing gear, lodged in and around her mouth. Northeast Fisheries Science Center/Peter Duley
The aquarium team says Dragon is a 19-year-old female right whale who is well-known to them.She has given birth three times, first at the age of seven, but that calf died of unknown causes within a week of its first sighting, according to the aquarium.Dragon went on to give birth again just two years later. Aquarium research scientist Philip Hamilton said that female calf seems to be doing well and is just reaching reproductive age.

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The third calf, born six years later in 2016, has not been seen since its birth year and has not yet been catalogued by the aquarium’s right whale team.Prior to Monday, the aquarium said Dragon had last been spotted in Cape Cod Bay in April 2019.